By Sid Smith
While in graduate school in 2006, Annie Arnoult Beserra discovered the work of 20th-Century performer Valeska Gert, thanks to rare clips of the German artist shown by a professor in his class.
It was only a minute and a half--very little of her solo work survives--but Beserra was hooked. "I immediately felt a kinesthetic connection, an aesthetic connection," Beserra said. "She was such a blend of dance and theater, but not in the sense of two separate disciplines, one layered on the other. She seemed the embodiment of this mixture, and that's something I'm drawn to. I don't feel a separation between them."
Gert was a dancer, cabaret performer, actress, model and innovator, working in her early years in the fertile artistic scene of Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Credited by some as the first performance artist--Beserra notes she has also been called the first "punk" -- Gert worked in Germany in the '20s and '30s, associated part of the time with Bertolt Brecht and his epic theater. Gert portrays Mrs. Peachum in the G.W. Pabst classic film of "The Threepenny Opera."
But she was also allied at times with the German dadaists of that period, the source for the title of Beserra's new piece for Striding Lion Performance Group, "Dada Gert," set to run Thursday through May 31 at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater.
What could so compel Beserra in a few, brief clips?
"An aggressiveness, an attack, a sense of frustration and joy," Beserra said. "She was so charismatic and boasted this amazingly expressive face. Her face was her dancing, in some ways, and that was a little bit horrifying to me as a postmodern dancer, trained to work on the body and keep the face neutral."
Dada rejected a rational approach to art in favor of nonsense and a kind of cultural anarchy. Its "sound poems" are assaults of noise. "She performed sound dances, and she performed in dadaist cabarets," Beserra noted. "But I wouldn't limit her to just that. She was socially progressive and felt art should comment on what was going on," as did Brecht. "She also believed in the idea of artistic genius and that she had it."
Beserra and Striding Lion have been working on this for two years now. "Dada Gert" is by no means an attempt to replicate Gert's solos, although clips of her art are broadcast during the performances. The seven cast members -- six dancers and one musician -- take on various characters inspired by her work, including a witch, a wet nurse and a procurist. "It's not a reconstruction, but a contemporary response to who she was and what she was doing."
In 1933, Gert, who was Jewish, left Germany and worked in England for a time before locating to the U.S. in 1938. She washed dishes and posed nude to survive, eventually opening her own bar, where her employees variously included Tennessee Williams, Jackson Pollock and the Living Theatre's Julian Beck and Judith Malina. Gert eventually returned to Europe and filmmaking, including a role in Federico Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits."
"We're trying to expose her to the public, but this is also selfishly motivated," Beserra confessed. "I want to investigate that bold expressivity, that 100 percent expressionist art she was doing. We don't go there so boldly anymore in 2013, and I'm invested in finding the clarity of that physical force."
For tickets to "Dada Gert" at the Hamlin Fieldhouse, 3035 N. Hoyne Av.: brownpapertickets.com.